Cooperation NOT Competition in Education

I didn’t expect to find a special needs advocacy-related post in Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits birthday post, dispelling his life lessons to his children.  But here it is.  #23 out of 38, for each year of Leo’s life.

“Competition is very rarely as useful as cooperation. Our society is geared toward competition — rip each other’s throats out, survival of the fittest, yada yada. But humans are meant to work together for the survival of the tribe, and cooperation pools our resources and allows everyone to contribute what they can. It requires a whole other set of people skills to work cooperatively, but it’s well worth the effort.”

– Leo Babauta

If we all cooperated, my children with Down syndrome would be welcome in the general education classroom.  Gen Ed teachers would be willing to work with them instead of taking the attitude that “they don’t belong in my classroom” or that’s “the aide’s problem.” The general educator would accommodate my child just like she accommodates every other child in her class… as an individual (and according to the law, btw)!  Special educators would take the time to discover how my children, who happen to have Down syndrome, learn and focus specifically on what they need to succeed instead of relying on antiquated, generalized teaching methodologies that don’t work for my children nor, very often, for the average child it was designed for (note the failing U.S. public education system).

It costs a TON more money to maintain a whole different world — a segregated environment — for people with special needs.  Compare the logic of a couple composed of two people living and maintaining separate homes, lives etc.  They pay 2 mortgages, buy twice the cleaning supplies and twice the appliances, use up more electricity, more heat, more gas getting back and forth to see each other.  Now, if we combined their 2 separate locations into one — as so many of us do through marriage — we’ve combined resources and reduced expenditures.  We have the maintenance of one home, bulk discounts (cheaper to buy food for two, to buy one product and share versus buying two and using each less than half the time); conservation of time, money and energy to paint 2 homes, furnish 2 homes, clean 2 homes, pay for 2 homes and no more traveling in between… a cost and time savings. 

The same is true for the segregated educational environments for children with special needs.  We have created a redundant educational system that costs significantly more money and today we know that it specifically contradicts research-based, best practices in educating children with special needs. 

That doesn’t mean, everyone goes to school and learns the same thing at the same time using the same method.  That won’t work for children with special needs AND it’s not working for children without special needs very well either.

Creating one method for all would be like expecting the same food intake for our fictional couple who’ve just committed to combining their lives.  He eats more food!  She eats more salad.  He crashes without protein for breakfast, she thrives (and maintains her weight) by eating yogurt for breakfast. Is it the same for everyone?  NO!  Is it equal? NO!  Does breakfast cost the same for each?  NO!  Can we force him to eat the yogurt or her to eat the egg-and-bacon protein-laden breakfast?  NO!  Education is the same. Each child with and without special needs requires individualized tweaks to the existing teaching method in order to succeed.

As a corporate executive, I was required to evaluate each of my employees to discover their learning style and then work that learning profile into their daily responsibilities and career path for growth within our company.  WHY did I do that?  Because it was cheaper and faster to train them according to the way they learn and afforded them greater skills and the opportunity to grow and benefit the company more quickly and with more impact.  The faster and more effectively I trained a new employee the quicker and better their contributions.  And, training according to their style increased their knowledge, let them know I cared about them as individuals and resulted in their staying longer with the company.  The financial benefit of their rapid learning curve and low turnover far outweighed the cost of evaluating their learning style and implementing an individualized job and career path.  And it’s not hard to do!  The same holds true for educating children with special needs.

Todays education system does LESS for our children. 

Tax payers and politicians need to legislate and push toward inclusion because it costs less and produces better outcomes for every one — for children with special needs and those who are typically developing, the special and general educators are more successful and the politicians and the tax payers save money. 

Going back to the combined domicile scenario: Maybe he eats more food and maybe she pays for a monthly commuter rail ticket to get to work. He goes to a gym and she goes to a yoga studio.  No one said everything is equal but costs and contributions even out in the end and everyone involved in the relationship thrives. 

Combining educational settings costs less and is more effective.  Providing a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) with appropriate supports, using individualized instruction for all students according to the research-based, best practices (which is why it is the law), means people with special needs will reach their full potential. Will achieve their greatest level of independence possible. Will contribute positively to our society.  That means a reduction in reliance on public assistance for the rest of their lives.

Consider the alternative.

If we took a child and isolated her from society, that child would not know how to act in public.  If we refused to educate him in such a way that he learns, he would know little. If we spoke in Russian when she is English-speaking, or handed him books when he is blind, or taught her verbally when she is deaf….would any of these people learn?  Would they know how to operate, contribute to or succeed within our society? If we separate those with disabilities, if we fail to educate them, if we keep these children separate, lock these children away, we will rapidly revisit the horrors of Willowbrook Hospital in the 1970s.  We ARE in danger now of that history repeating itself by taking an institutional, segregated approach to people with disabilites!

We humans are a tribe.  And it’s about time we started cooperating instead of competing. Standing together instead of dividing by superficial differences. 

“In a democratic society we must live cooperatively, and serve the community in which we live, to the best of our ability. For our own success to be real, it must contribute to the success of others.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt


About Maggie

I'm a stay-at-home mother of 3 children including a 15-year-old daughter, the Old Soul, and 11-year-old identical twin boys who've been blessed with an extra 21st chromosome (aka: Down Syndrome). I happily spend my time doing all that I can do -- breaking the proverbial box wide open -- to foster my children's development and then sharing what I learn with you through this blog.
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2 Responses to Cooperation NOT Competition in Education

  1. Kelley Shields says:

    Your observation of today’s educational system–that it does less for our children–really resonated with me as my mind bitterly and wearily reviewed my battle-laden memories of our oldest daughter’s NYC public school education. Learners are absolutely not equal and yet the bulk of school curriculums are designed to address the learning needs of the ‘average/median student vs. the special need student.’

    This mysterious ratio–derived how, I have no idea–was regularly employed–defensively–by principals and guidance counselors in our many meetings over the years, as if the complaint of the myriad challenges contained within an effort to do something fully–in this case address all needs as opposed to only the larger set’s needs–was viable.

    We had to insist our oldest be placed in general population classes only despite the challenges posed by having Tourette Syndrome and its accompanying ADD/ADHD aura. Rigid, one-way-only math curriculums have required years of tutors and standardized tests have effectively excluded this brilliant thinker from forums where she not only would have excelled personally but would have undoubtedly raised the bar developmentally for both her teachers and peers.

    I am exhausted by the past 10 years of fighting. She is in her 2nd year of HS. In compensation, our collective sights–hers, mine and my husband’s–are now set on the imminent freedom a more self-directed future of a college education will hopefully provide her.

    • Maggie says:

      I am with you Kelley. And I am early in the process. My Old Soul has ADD, HATES (but is good at) math and is “gifted!” The general curriculum and bell curve just doesn’t address her learning style. Then there are The Boys… a unique learning style is a curse in the NY public school system. I’m hoping to sway the new (this year) principal of the kindergarten center to view education as a more individualized endeavor, per the federal disability and education laws!

      Nassau County is the worst county in NY state at implementing inclusionary education, next to Manhatten (unfortunately for you). I hope the remainder of your daughter’s education goes more smoothly and that the college experience is awesome, when it’s time.

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